Sarah Jane Norman: Surabaya Johnny
Review by Joon Lynn Goh
The voice is black - like the shadow that engulfs the room. I follow it down a red satin corridor and find myself in front of its owner. Perched upon a make-shift stage is a brightly lit showgirl crowned in black feathers. Elaborately bound from ankle to elbow, black knots cross her naked body forming diamonds in her skin. I’m not sure whether the ropes that tie her to the iron beams above are constricting her or actually holding her weary body up. She takes breath and begins the song again. By this point, she has been singing Surabaya Johnny, an iconic love song from Weimer Germany’s cabaret scene, repeatedly for 4 hours.
Popular love songs dictate brevity, but on this occasion Berlin-based Australian artist, Sarah-Jane Norman, stretches them over hours in endless repetition. Surabaya Johnny is the first of four songs of the cycle, Songs of Rapture and Torture, which re-interpret time-worn love songs in both duration and bodily endurance.
Sarah-Jane sings in German but it’s clear her words are for a mysterious man, whose name is repeatedly drawn out in whispers and bellows. Originally a song from a Weill-Brecht musical, Happy Ending, Surabaya Johnny tells the love story of 16 yr old girl and a man who takes her away, steals her heart, and abandons her. This mournful tale is sung again and again. As a displaced child who still loves the man who has left, and as a back-stage showgirl with an audience of one, Sarah-Jane will not stop singing. I study her glamorous face, and can’t take my eyes away from hers, which are bandaged shut. The longer I stare, the more I wonder if its not the pain she is trying to shut out, but rather the pain she is trying to keep close. If forgetting is a survival tactic, its opposite is willful remembrance. Sarah-Jane continues to sing, and I wonder when the blood circulation will cut, when her throat will swell and choke, and whether her body shall be willed into remembering.
As a central focus in her practice, Sarah-Jane describes the body as both a spectacle of truth and a theatre of fantasy. Here it is heavy vessel, loaded and empty with histories, narratives and the desires of empires; of its sailors and soldiers returning to estranged homes, of its comfort women across the seas, and of its children born to neither. Of mixed British and Indigenous Australian heritage, Sarah-Jane reminds us of the black knots that elaborately bind us together, no matter how hard we try to forget.
My 10 minutes is over. I am ushered out and she does not notice. As I leave, the body becomes a voice, the voice a shadow, and then a willful memory.